Phillips seeks redemption in senior year

AUSTIN, Texas -- One year ago, Adrian Phillips had a bum shoulder. Now he has a chip on his shoulder.

Much was expected of the Texas free safety as a junior, and in hindsight that might’ve been unfair. Now that he’s a senior, he has only one chance to make up for a season that was a disappointment.

“I really had to go deep inside myself,” Phillips said, “and say, ‘Look, forget everything that has happened. Only look ahead.’”

Look back, though, and it’s easy to see this wasn’t entirely his fault. Phillips missed spring practices and fall camp last year while recovering from shoulder surgery that was supposed to sideline him up to six months. So yes, when he was thrust right back into the starting lineup for Texas’ opener against Wyoming, he was playing hurt.

He downplayed the pain early last season, perhaps because Phillips had exceedingly high expectations for himself. This was the year he planned to make a name for himself, to win awards and make All-Big 12 teams and prove he’s one of the next great members of “DBU.”

There was only one problem, and a rather glaring one: Tackling. Missing the hard-hitting days of fall practice proved more problematic than he’d anticipated.

Phillips unwittingly became somewhat of a whipping boy for a Texas secondary that struggled far too often to make stops in the open field. And he couldn’t fathom why.

“You can watch film from my freshman year of me hitting bigger guys than I’ve ever hit before and taking them to the ground. That’s why it was hard for me to understand,” Phillips said. “Everybody knew I wasn’t that player. The fact I was playing that way, they couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

“I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. If I knew, I would’ve fixed it.”

Texas secondary coach Duane Akina searched for solutions and tried starting Josh Turner and Mykkele Thompson at free safety, but Akins didn’t give up on Phillips either.

The dissatisfying season did end on a good note, with interceptions in Texas’ final two regular season games. Phillips still finished third on the team in tackles with 72.

“What turned it around for me was, I just went back to the basics,” he said. “Make contact, run your feet, wrap up. Don’t worry about trying to do too much or trying to get on a highlight tape. Just make contact, run your feet, wrap up.”

He did his best to not let the criticism from Longhorns fans get to him, but there’s no doubt the trials shook his confidence at times. When you’ve come this far yet have no answer for what’s wrong with your game, that’s only natural.

“If you doubt yourself, that’s when problems happen,” Phillips said. “Of course, when you hear that criticism it’ll make you mad, but you never want to use that as doubt. Once you do that, you’re going to lose from the start. You remember what happened and make it better for the next year.”

Akina didn’t need to tell the members of his secondary that their play wasn’t up to the “DBU” standard. The ups and downs of 2012 were motivation enough.

“No matter if you’re coming off a great season or a horrible season, it’s never going to be good enough,” Phillips said. “Coach Akina always wants to raise the bar. That’s why he’s the best coach in America right now.”

Phillips is raising his own expectations too. He says he’s now 100 percent healthy for the first time in a long time, and a full workload in spring practices and summer lifting undoubtedly helped.

He’s grateful his teammates had his back last season when he struggled, and he’s especially appreciative that Akina still believes he can emerge as a top-flight safety. He’s ready to reward his coach’s faith.

“He stayed on our side,” Philips said. “A lot of credit goes to him, because he helped us in our time of need. We are going to get that changed this year."